HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania Senate moved closer to a final vote on legislation to govern how police use body-worn cameras and other types of recording devices and when footage produced by the devices can be released to the public. The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania critiqued the bill as a means to denying public access to video produced by police cameras.
"If police are going to use body-worn cameras, one of the purposes for their use must be public accountability and transparency," said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "But that purpose is missing from this bill. In fact, the legislation actually says that a court must give 'deference' to a law enforcement agency that has denied a request for access to footage.
"If the public cannot have at least some ability to obtain video produced by police cameras, these devices become another tool for surveillance and shouldn't be used at all."
Introduced by Senator Stewart Greenleaf, Senate Bill 560 amends the Wiretap Act to clarify when police can use cameras, including the elimination of the current restriction on recording inside a residence and the current requirement to notify people that they are being recorded.
The bill also creates a process to limit the public's ability to obtain video produced by the cameras. A request must first be submitted to the law enforcement agency or the district attorney, and the language of the legislation lists numerous reasons why the agency can withhold the video while not listing any reasons why the agency must release it.
A request that is denied can be appealed to the court of common pleas, where the person making the request must submit a fee of $125. The bill allows release of the video only if the court finds that the "public interest" outweighs the interest of the agency and that the denial was "arbitrary and capricious," while giving "deference" to the agency that denied the request.
"In effect, video produced by these cameras will rarely, if ever, be seen," said Elizabeth Randol, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "Unlike the Right to Know Law, this bill puts the burden on the public to argue why the video should be available. As a result, these cameras will cease to be a tool for accountability."
The Senate Appropriations Committee passed the legislation this afternoon, its last procedural stop before a final vote on the Senate floor.